‘What is the point of life?’ is a question that’s been bugging humans since day one.
Thousands of years of philosophy, religion, war, and exploration have gone by, and never once in those years have people stopped pondering the nature of existence.
Today, we enjoy almost unimaginable advancements in technology.
We have the knowledge and tools to examine life in atomic detail. We can transfer organs from one body to another to sustain life. We’ve sent over 500 people to space and back in the last 50 years.
Human life has come a long way in a very short amount of time, yet we still find ourselves wondering what we’re actually doing here.
Even with all our technology and tools for analysis, investigation, and exploration, there is still no clear, objective answer for the question ‘what is the point of life?’ Well, at least no answer that we can all agree on.
Some people wonder about the point of life because they’re fascinated when they look up at the stars. Other people wonder about the point of life when they feel low, exhausted, or fed up.
Regardless of why you’re asking, it’s a real challenge to find an exact answer to this question.
What do you think the meaning of life is? Is it to be happy and successful and live an enjoyable life? Is it to have a purpose in life and make a positive impact, leaving the world a better place than you found it?
Is your life’s mission to end world hunger? Or are you really destined to a pointless life? This question can be overwhelming at times. If it’s stressing you out, know that there’s no need to worry.
The most scientific and philosophical minds and schools of thought all have their own ideas about the real point of life. Some are similar, some are distinctly different, but it’s safe to say that all is speculation.
In this article, we can’t promise that we’re going to give you the answer to life. Still, we will discuss some of the most popular ideas and theories that exist, from religion to philosophy and everything in between.
Later in this article, we’ll offer some tips and advice to help you find your own answer to this unanswerable question.
First, let’s take a look at some of the big ideas.
Philosophy and religion on the meaning of life
Let’s explore how different schools of thought deal with this question.
1. Theism and the meaning of life
Theism is the belief in a supreme, divine being (‘God’). Some religions are monotheistic, meaning, they believe in only one God or supreme being; monotheistic religions include Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Other religions are polytheistic, which means they believe in several gods and goddesses. Hinduism and Paganism are examples of polytheistic religions.
Theism dates back years before recorded history. Humans have believed in a higher power for most of our time on the planet, an entity to worship in our earthly lives to rejoin with the high being after death.
In monotheistic faiths the meaning of life is to follow and worship God, whatever that means to each specific religious ideology. Essentially, the meaning of life involves living according to God’s purpose and plan for our lives, which is revealed through the word of God (the Bible).
In polytheistic religions, the meaning of life is to incorporate the messages of the gods into our daily lives and serve them with our actions and behavior.
2. Taoism and the principle of ‘Wu Wei’
Taoism suggests that the meaning and point of life is to simply live it without force. Tao is the ‘way’ and is not something that one can describe in words.
At the core of Taoism is the principle of Wu Wei, which means ‘action without intention.’ Taoists believe that to live one’s life well is to join to the natural order of things, not to push or fight against what happens in our lives but to accept whatever happens with grace, gratitude, and patience.
The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.Alan Watts
3. Cynicism and the importance of freedom
To the cynics, the purpose of life is to live a virtuous life in accordance with nature. The cynics believed that meaning in life is not found in acquiring material possession but in living within one’s basic needs and means.
“It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing, and of godlike men to want little.” – Diogenes.
The cynics posit that happiness and real freedom come from being self-sufficient and rejecting ideals of fame, wealth, and power.
Similar to cynicism, stoicism eschews striving for material gain and wealth. Stoicism suggests that all the meaning of life is to transcend emotionality and reactivity and instead make wise choices based on rational thought.
It posits that we have the power to choose how we respond to and engage in life, and it is in these choices that meaning and purpose ensue.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is the power to choose our response.”Viktor Frankl
Existentialists believe that people need to accept life has no inherent meaning but that we create meaning for ourselves. We are the creators of our life and our destiny, not the puppets or subjects of a supreme being.
In existentialism lies the idea of existential angst – that we are born with a deep need to find meaning and suffer if we can’t find it.
“Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism.”Jean-Paul Sartre
Existentialism believes that we have free will or freedom of choice. As such, it believes that we are the only ones responsible for our life.
It is up to us to make choices that create meaning and purpose. The life task of the existentialist is to create one’s own meaning in an objectively meaningless universe.
Absurdism, made popular by novelist Albert Camus, suggests that direct attempts to find meaning never prevail. This idea is explored in the Myth of Sisyphus, in which the titular character, Sisyphus, is punished by the gods for trying to defeat death.
Sisyphus was condemned to push a large boulder up a steep hill forever, only to watch it roll back down again when he reached the top.
Another example of absurdism and the futility of finding meaning in life can be seen in the story of Tantalus. The gods punished Tantalus by being made to stand in a pool of water under a fruit tree. The fruit tree was always just out of Tantalus’s grasp, and anytime he tried to drink the water, it receded.
The essence of absurdism is summed up by Albert Camus, who claimed:
“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”Albert Camus
The importance of a meaningful life
Finding a meaning or purpose for our lives is an important step on the path to individuation. According to Carl Jung, individuation is the process by which we become our true, unique selves and by which we develop a reason for being here.
If we fail to find meaning or purpose (which doesn’t have to be grandiose or spiritual, it may simply be enough to spend time with one’s family or help other people), we may experience a lot of suffering.
Believing that one has no reason to be here is a great motivator and can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression.
Those who do experience depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues related to existential angst, often find that developing a sense of meaning or purpose creates a significant shift towards healing.
How do I find meaning in life?
Though there are ancient and modern ideas on the meaning of life, all of which are extremely popular and boast many followers, the true meaning of life comes down to the meaning you make of it.
My perception of reality is different from yours, and yours is different from your neighbor’s. One person can find purpose and meaning through a particular religion, while the same faith wouldn’t appeal to another.
One person may find meaning in having a family and continuing their family line, while for another, meaning may ensue from following a passion such as painting or dancing.
Some people equate meaning with success and status, while for another, meaning may involve living in harmony with nature.
If you’re struggling to find meaning in your life, if you find yourself wondering ‘what’s the point?’ or ‘what’s the meaning behind all this?’, you’re not alone. All of us ask this question at one point or another in our lives.
The good news is that it doesn’t matter how old you are or how your life has gone so far if you want to find meaning. Your meaning and purpose are extremely personal and can be created and cultivated at your will.
Finding meaning and purpose may help you live a better life.
Sometimes we get so caught up in our daily tasks and responsibilities that we forget why we’re doing them at all. Without meaning or purpose, it may be hard to find the motivation to keep going.
Read on to get some tips and inspiration on how to find or create meaning today.
1. Cultivate self-awareness
Awareness is key to finding and awakening to your life’s purpose. Though there may be an inherent purpose in life, practicing self-awareness can help you identify what’s important to you.
From this place of recognition, you can orient your life to align with what you deem most important and act accordingly.
To find the meaning and purpose that matters to you as an individual, it’s important to see and accept your nature as a whole.
We must accept and show compassion to even the most suppressed or buried parts of ourselves. Rejection of the parts of oneself can lead to a lost sense of self and even depression, both of which make it extremely challenging to see life’s purpose.
According to renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the parts of ourselves that we deny or ‘cut off’ become the shadow self. Jung emphasizes the shadow self must be reintegrated into the psyche, and it is within the shadow that a sense of meaning and purpose can arise.
How to cultivate self-awareness
Self-awareness is recognizing our feelings, emotions, beliefs, and true motivations at any given moment. To become more self-aware, we must bring our attention to what we’re feeling, the choices we’re making, and the inner narrative that is constantly running in our heads.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool that can help you increase your self-awareness. You can begin practicing mindfulness by simply taking a few moments to step back, breathe, and become observant about what’s happening in your life right now rather than reactive.
One of the greatest benefits of mindfulness, once we really get the hang of the practice, is that it’s hard to lie to ourselves. We develop an honest relationship with ourselves and our actions.
Thoughts and behaviors that don’t serve our highest purpose become obvious.
Self-awareness and mindfulness can help us find meaning in life because they help unite us with our deeper selves. Often, when we lack motivation or purpose, it’s because we’ve disconnected from the passions and excitement for the life we once had.
Mindful awareness is how we can return to lightness, innocence, passion, and abundant joy for life. It all begins with attuning to our breath so we can be here now in the present moment, the only place where life is really happening.
2. Help others
Helping other people is one of the easiest and most effective ways to establish a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. There is an infinite number of things you can do to help others.
You can volunteer at a shelter, donate clothes and other items you no longer need, mow your elderly neighbor’s lawn, and donate some money to a local charity or church.
You can get involved in a community clean-up project, organize an adventure group for disadvantaged youth, or re-paint your mother’s house. You can do so many things, big and small, to help others and make their lives a little easier.
“Practice kindness all day to everybody, and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”Jack Kerouac
It may come as no surprise that helping others provides a sense of the meaning of fulfillment in life. One study even proves it. Daryl Van Tongeren published a study in The Journal of Positive Psychology that involved 400 participants.
All participants were questioned on how often they help others through volunteering or other altruistic behaviors and how much meaning they felt their lives had. Participants who reported higher levels of generous, altruistic behavior also had the highest reported levels of meaningfulness and purpose.
3. Identify your values
What are your core values? What are the concepts or beliefs in your life that have the most meaning to you? What will you fight to preserve or achieve above all else?
When we live our lives aligned with our core values, we naturally feel a sense of meaning and purpose. However, when our lives are not aligned with our own values, we’re likely to suffer and feel as though there is no real point to anything.
As such, it’s crucial to identify and align with your true values if you want to live a meaningful and happy life.
If you’re not sure what your values are, it may take some inner exploration to find them. Below we’ve included a list of common core values to spark some inspiration for your journey inwards.
- Physical fitness
- Mental health and well-being
- Community involvement
- Intimate relationships
- Spirituality or faith
If any of the above resonates with you, make a note. This is where you’re likely to find your meaning and purpose. It may be true that several of the above resonates with you. That’s great! Write them all down.
4. Connect with others
Humans are social beings. Since our earliest days, we have worked in groups and communities to help each other survive and thrive.
Connections and bonds with others offer a sense of meaning because they take us out of self-absorption and ego-driven motivations and instead shift our focus towards serving others for the greater good.
“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us’ universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.
This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”Albert Einstein
The community lies at the heart of mankind’s purpose. Do as much you can to reach out and connect with others and notice how much meaning and purpose you feel as a result. You can foster new connections or focus on maintaining existing ones.
5. Write your life story
An effective way to find purpose in your life is to write down your personal narrative.
What circumstances were you born into, and how do you relate to those circumstances now? What challenges have you faced and overcome?
How have you helped other people throughout your life, and how have others helped you? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Writing about our life stories can offer some perspective on what we’re really doing with our lives.
Today, take even 15 to 20 minutes to write about your life and how you make sense of it. Turn those 15 to 20 minutes into a daily or weekly practice and begin to explore your life and purpose curiously.
The Bottom Line
Absurdism claims that finding meaning in life is not achieved by directly looking for it. Taoism advises accepting the flow of life and finding peace and happiness in the natural way of things. Theists search for meaning through doing the work of God or gods.
However one chooses to find meaning, in essence, it all comes down to choice, perspective, and attitude. Does it really matter if life has no inherent meaning? If we have the ability to make life meaningful, to have a purpose, isn’t that enough?
Let’s end this article with a quote from Viktor E. Frankl, psychoanalyst, holocaust survivor, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.
“The meaning of life is to give life meaning.”Viktor E. Frankl